"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Guest Post: Tough Educational Challenges Make for Bad 'Reforms'

Dr. John Thompson was an award-winning historian, lobbyist, and guerilla-gardener who became an award-winning inner city teacher after crack and gangs hit his neighborhood.By John Thompson

There is an old saying that, "Tough cases make bad law." Similarly, the New York Department of Education, due to its size, is a tough educational challenge. Ordinarily, Eric Nadelstern's "The Evolution of School Support Networks in New York City" would primarily interest policy wonks, but since the architects of New York City's "reforms" have tried to impose them on the rest of the country, this acronym-packed account of governance squabbles holds lessons for all educators. It also helps explain why so many bad educational policies are being imposed on our nation's schools.

According to Nadelstern, the bad old "status quo," which dominated the NYC schools from 1968 to 2003, was a bunch of "fiefdoms," that rewarded loyal constituencies and perpetuated a culture of compliance. Nadelstern sought to replace those bad fiefdoms with good "networks" (as in Networks for School Renewal) and good "zones" (as in the Learning Zone.) But, Chancellor Rudy Crew co-opted the idea of devolution and supposedly created a bad "district" (as in the Chancellor's District) that micromanaged.

Then, Crew's bad version of decentralization was replaced by the Mayor Mike Bloomberg's good form of centralization, known as "mayoral control." The good Bloomberg dissolved the Board of Education, and created the Education Priorities Panel. Concurrently, the bad Bloomberg "ran roughshod over" the panel and imposed good policies (such as ending social promotion) and bad micromanaging (such as mandating 150 minutes of tutoring a week.)

Nadelstern's describes a Manichean division between righteous crusaders for "Children First," as opposed to "vested interest groups" who "preyed on the school system." The battle between good and evil became even sharper when Joel Klein became the chancellor. Klein, a litigator not an educator, came to the rescue not by addressing educational substance but by creating ten regional superintendents. To keep his people from becoming an "imperial superintendency," he stripped them of financial power. Klein gave the power of the purse to six regional operations centers (ROCs). But, the ROCs recreated the same "dysfunctional, top-down culture," and became "districts on steroids." So, Klein created an Office of New Schools. Klein used that office to staff schools with principals who had been trained in his philosophy. By the way, Klein had a "genius" for defeating the bad micromanagers. For instance, he defeated some of them by micromanaging the number of boxes (two) they could move from their old offices to their new ones.

If this narrative sounds arcane, please be patient because the really good stuff begins in 2004 when Nadelstern was promoted. Unfortunately, his boss had a different priority, the stress of the political conflict took its toll, and Nadelstern underwent two back surgeries. Then, the Autonomy Zone was created as "an antidote to regional mismanagement." The Zone was rebranded as Empowerment Schools and "we created the first integrated service center (ISC)." But Klein had a couple of different priorities, and he created the learning support centers (LSCs) and the partnership school organizations (PSOs). The presumably bad side of Klein mistakenly allowed the Division of Instruction to become "a safe haven" for dissenters. The good Klein later authorized Nadelstern to dismantle the bad division. But, the good PSOs created a balance between supporting schools and creating a "culture of accountability," while the bad PSOs made excuses. Also, the ISC "foundered," and the ROCs were reorganized along the lines of school support organizations (SSOs).

Nadelstern writes with unmistakable pride that his Empowerment Zone grew to 535 schools and 22 networks as he became "completely responsible" for the "day-to-day operations" of 1,700 schools. Because he met weekly with subordinates who made weekly visits to those schools, presumably Nadelstern could always divine who was using and who was misusing their power. On the other hand, the SSOs were not as prescient, and their "diffused reporting structure" was "problematic" when resolving problems.

Getting back the alphabet soup of "reform," the ISCs were aligned into clusters, but it took a high-profile battle with a deputy chancellor before it was determined that the right way to organize clusters was around function, not geography. Seven members of the chancellor's cabinet had worked for Nadelstern, but "in retrospect, it is easy to see that our work began to unravel the summer before Joel Klein's departure and my retirement." So, once again, the district is squandering millions of dollars by micromanaging schools.

For some reason, Nadelstern does not take the story full circle and he does not mention the emails that the Klein administration was forced to release due to the Freedom of Information Act. He did not ask whether the old de facto "office of constituent service" has been reconstituted for the benefit of charter schools and Klein's other allies (such as his new boss Rupert Murdoch.)

Instead, Nadelstern outlines recommendations for the top down destruction of top down governance. Centralized power should "nurture successful networks" while protecting them from the networks that would destroy them. That way, the opponents of the superintendents' opponents would be empowered, as their enemies are driven out of the system. Then, good principals would reign supreme, unfettered by teachers' representatives or, for that matter, the administrators with the best knowledge of how schools actually operate - assistant principals. The good superintendents, using aggregate student data, would reward and punish principals and networks. And, none of the palace intrigue would influence the objective evaluations of principals or teachers...

Seriously, why is Nadelstern so confident that he can tell the difference between the top down, centralized punishment of adults (in service to children,) as opposed the micromanaging that damages students? Given the time that Nadelstern and Klein devoted to the DOE's battles over ROCs, ISCs, LSCs, PSOs, and SSOs, how could they had time to figure out whether their data had a connection to the realities inside schools? How could they ensure that their good principals and superintendents, when unchecked by other peoples' power, conveyed reliable information to the righteous few who held them accountable? And, even if Nadelstern could staff every school with administrators with the sterling moral character required to report the whole truth, given the damage done by the stress of the political combat that felled him, why would he think that school leaders could survive the unrelenting pressure that was imposed on them?

Nadelstern worked for a tough litigator whose policies damaged some students in order to help others, in the belief that a final victory over the forces of darkness would liberate them all. Since Klein created a system where it was unlikely that accurate information would be conveyed up the chain of command, it would have been nice if his deputy had cited research on how their reforms were actually implemented or journalism documenting the damage that was done to schools that they left behind. It would have also been refreshing for a person in Nadelstern's position to balance his reports of big increases in the graduation rate with an acknowledgement that "credit recovery" programs jacked up those numbers.

Given the enormous challenge of reforming central offices, should he have not urged novices like Klein to stick with the big enough task of reforming the district's administration? Why would they have possibly thought that they could train an entire system to think the way that they think? Why were they so confident in their ability to identify which schools deserved to be rewarded and punished?

Nadelstern is so convinced that a "culture of accountability" produced the improvements that occurred in his school, he ignores the damage that it did to other schools. He seems obsessed with the political combat that it took before he was "permitted to commander the chancellor's conference room at Tweed" so that he could enact the constructive part of his agenda. I have no doubt that Nadelstern benefitted some students when he worked with 14 network leaders to develop a "strong common culture of service to schools." But, his own words seem to indicate that his boss' "reforms" did more harm than good, and that their accomplishments are transitory. And, why did he adopt a risky bank shot of engaging in brutal bureaucratic combat in order to achieve the opposite - a culture where only some favored schools could treat educators and students with respect?

The answer, I bet, is linked to the enormity of the challenge of gaining control, in order to relinquish control. My theory was that the obsession with fighting New York-sized political battles blinded people to the opportunities to draw upon the Big Apple's strengths. Rather than rooting out all dissent, they could have better served students by making compromises and building on the city's diversity. And the same applies to Klein's and Nadelstern's acolytes who feel so entitled to use the tough and unique case of New York City in order to micromanage the way that districts across our diverse nation run their own classrooms.

Dr. John Thompson was an award-winning historian, lobbyist, and guerilla-gardener who became an award-winning inner city teacher after crack and gangs hit his neighborhood. He blogs at thisweekineducation.com, and huffingtonpost.com, and is writing a book on 18 years of idealistic politics in the classroom and realistic politics outside.


  1. Thank you Diane, for this blog.

    The Nadlesterns, the Kleins and Rhees, the Duncans and all the consultants and administrative talking heads whose words and 'reform' ideas are devoured by the media, have presided over an anti-learning bureaucracy, and there is nary a genuine educator among them.

    This story knocked me out.

    I lost track of the shenanigans in NYC after I 'retired' in 2000. Nadelstern embodies the 'Process' that ignores the needs of the learner and the needs of the educator in the classroom, and substitutes top-down management and mandates that ensure the failure of the schools to facilitate learning!

    Moreover, as all of us (who were cohorts for the GENUINE New Standards research) know the standards were all about enabling and SUPPORTING learning, not mandating teaching.

    Years ago, you told me that we were up against powerful forces; reading about this obsessed egotist I realize how powerful men rule the roost, while no one listens to the practitioner-- the grunt on the line -- who faces a population of 21st century kids.

    The classroom practitioners (who know how the brain acquires SKILLS) ARE NEVER permitted to voice opposition to the mandates they are required to follow.

    The New Standards research was usurped by charlatans, and translated into "testing" and the 'reformers' like Nadelstern "did more harm than good."

    As Randi Weingarten says "To innovate, ask those who educate" but instead they asked Nadelstern... or rather HE insisted he knew 'the way'.

    In the first chapter of her new book, "Sins,' Lorna Stremcha identifies the drastic change to 'top-down' management of schools, which silenced the voice of the genuine educator and substituted the bluster of the Nadlesterns and Kleins, and the failure of the schools began.

    It makes me so sad, because I was there in 1963 when the schools produced American workers who could think.

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